“The Six Sticks” is a story from Likeke R. McBride’s The Kahuna: Versatile Masters of Old Hawai’i (3rd edition, November 2000), pages 57 – 59.
Before I proceed with the story of “The Six Sticks”, I want to emphasize that the kahuna in old Hawai’i were men and women who were professionals: doctors, diagnosticians, navigators, astronomers, geologists, meteorologists, artists and poets among other professions. Starting in childhood, they underwent rigorous study before they became kahuna in their fields some 20 to 30 years later.
There were also sorcerers among the kahuna. Sorcerers may have ended their professional studies prematurely and slipped into sorcery as a way of life. These sorcerers could be provoked into frightening actions.
“The Six Sticks”
“In the early 1900’s, grass houses were already becoming uncommon in Hawai’i. On the southern shore of Moloka’i, not far from a village, was a thatched structure of ancient age. Nobody remembered when it was built. It had always been there. Apparently, it was the home of an equally old man who was never seen to do anything but sit on a pile of mats and gaze at the sea. No one had ever seen him fishing, tending a garden or employed at any work. He had no visitors. His occupation was simply watching the ocean. How he kept alive no one knew or cared, for the talk was that he was once a kahuna of great power. When going by the old man’s kuleana [place of residence] was unavoidable, it was considered wise to look neither left nor right, but to keep the eyes on the path lest one step upon a cross mark [kaha pe’a] or ki leaves which would bring misfortune.
“The old man might never have been disturbed for the length of his days had it not been for the effects of alcohol. By chance, one day, a young man named Lopaka and his friends wandered in that direction. They were celebrating payday and their new wealth by passing a quart of ‘okolehao [alcohol distilled from ki root] among themselves as they meandered up the beach engaged with jokes and good natured horseplay.
“The bottle was nearly empty when one of the young men glanced up and saw the old man seated in front of his house looking right at them. The youth gestured wildly at his companions and whispered that they had to go back home now. All quickly agreed except Lopaka who declared that he wasn’t afraid of the ‘elemakule [old man] and proved it by staggering toward the house, holding out the bottle.
” ‘Here, old man,’ called Lopaka, ‘take the last drink. It will rest your eyes and change your day.’
“If the aged Hawaiian heard, he gave no indication but continued to sit cross-legged on the mats. His kihei [cloak] and malo [loincloth] were of clean tapa [paper-like cloth] and across his lap was a thin stick with a tuft of dog hair tied to the end. Thinking the old fellow hard of hearing, Lopaka repeated the invitation in a shout, but still got no response.
“Angered by the ancient one’s indifference, Lopaka drained the bottle and threw it on the ground. Then he grabbed up the old kahuna’s stick and snapped it into six pieces. For the first time, the figure on the mats moved. From under the kihei came a long bony arm that raked up the fragments and deftly lined them up in the sand at the edge of the mat.
“In a low, clear voice, the old man addressed Lopaka. ‘Each stick is a day. Tomorrow I will remove one. The next day another. When all the sticks are gone, you will die.’
“Lopaka roared with laughter. ‘Speak of your own end, old man, for you are nearer the grave than I am.’ He then kicked the sticks away and still chuckling, lurched down the strand to join his friends who were rapidly leaving him behind.
“By the following day, the story had spread throughout the countryside and many people came to Lopaka’s house to offer advice and sympathy to his parents. At their urging, the father decided to go to the old sorcerer to ask what reparation could be made for his son’s transgression. He thought about the problem all night and by morning had chosen his words and the goods that he would offer. He found the old man seated as always but with only four sticks left standing in the sand in front of him. Though he promised many things, not a word or movement answered the father’s request and so he returned home.
“Lopaka’s mother tried the next day, but she found that a woman’s tears had no more effect than the arguments of a father and she was even more distressed because only three sticks were left.
“When Lopaka himself returned to the old man’s place, just two sticks remained to decorate the sand. For the sake of his parents, he begged and pleaded for his life, saying that he was sorry and promising to do anything within reason to make up for the wrong he had committed. As before, his words fell on deaf ears and Lopaka returned to his home a completely changed young man.
” ‘There is not any need for you to worry more,’ Lopaka told his parents, ‘nor will you have to plan a funeral, for I have decided to go away so that the works of the old man will not concern us.’
“Lopaka ate a hasty meal prepared by his mother, while his father gathered a few necessities for his trip and with a brief aloha [farewell] he left the land of his birth.
“Two days later, he was found on another island, sprawled on the beach in death, with a short broken stick clutched tightly in his fist.”
One of the strengths of Likeke R. McBride’s book The Kahuna is that he examined the kahuna in a Hawaiian context.
I am honored to note that an essay I wrote for Dad’s publisher Petroglyph Press – intended as an Afterword – was turned into a Foreword to a revised edition of the book.
Link to Basically Books – associated with Petroglyph Press – and the bookstore’s “Hawaiian Culture” list:
Please navigate through the site for ordering information if you are interested.
Blessings to the memory of Likeke R. McBride.